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Wood chips, and controversy, fly in South

Growth of logging in Southeast prompts protests from landowners, environmentalists.

By Craig SavoyeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2000


Nestled in an ancient valley in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, the two-year-old high-tech chip mill here produces nearly 200,000 pounds of quarter-sized wood wafers per year - and a ton of controversy.

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It's an argument tied to what some see as a harbinger of a dramatic shift in logging from America's Pacific Northwest to the South.

The small chips produced by plants like this one are eventually made into everything from particle board to grocery bags to high-quality computer paper. Chip mills, whose numbers have more than quadrupled to 150 in the Southeast in the past 15 years, are moneymakers because they use sawmill scrap wood and smaller logs typically harvested by clear-cut methods. Unlike the Northwest, private landowners control almost 85 percent of forest land in the Southeast, and environmentalists worry that private landowners looking to make a quick buck will be tempted to clear-cut great swaths of the Southeastern forest.

And that has set off a debate over clear-cutting itself, private property rights, silted streams, loss of wildlife habitat, and vacation homes with a view.

"It's becoming quite extensive, no question about it," says Norman Christensen, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Much of the dialogue on this issue has been conditioned by experiences in the Northwest, but the Southeast is unique. Here, environmental considerations are certainly important, but suburbanization and vacation homes in forested areas are fundamentally changing the nature of the land's economic value."

The Show-Me State certainly isn't the only locale where private landowners are saying, "Show me the money." More than 1.2 million acres of woodlands are harvested throughout the Southeast each year.

A variety of factors sparked the trend. Restrictions in the Northwest have reduced logging there by nearly 45 percent from its high in the early 1980s.

The run-up in Southeast logging has set off alarm bells among a broad coalition of groups. Environmentalists think increased runoff from barren hillsides will degrade water quality in rivers and streams and lead to loss of wildlife habitat. Hunters and fishermen share many of their concerns.

But the debate's wild card seems to be affluent and politically savvy second-home residents new to the woods, many of whom decry the unsightliness of clear-cuts. When united, they form a powerful political force.

Indeed, public outcry has led to political action in several states. The governors of Missouri and North Carolina formed advisory committees to study the impact of proliferating chip mills and clear-cutting. In Tennessee, a similar advisory committee has already made its recommendations. And in South Carolina, a coalition of 30 organizations pressed the governor last year for a moratorium on licensing chip mills there and to initiate a study.

In addition, several federal agencies and 13 states are doing a two-year study of the economic and environmental impact of increased logging in the Southeast.